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Landfill could power new Rogue Valley buses

A record $13 million in grants will bring 12 new buses to the Rogue Valley that could be powered by natural gas from the Dry Creek Landfill.

“We’re not only talking about the buses, but we’re talking to other municipalities about switching their fleets over,” said Julie Brown, general manager of Rogue Valley Transportation District.

The biggest single grant in RVTD’s history — $7.7 million — is coming from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, Brown said.

The money will be used for additional cleaning and other precautions taken to avoid spreading COVID-19. In addition, the money from the CARES Act will offset the loss in revenue from ridership being down almost 60%, partially because of social distancing requirements but also because many schools haven’t been open.

In addition to lower ridership, she said, RVTD anticipates receiving less revenue from a payroll tax, which amounts to 1/10 of 1%, because of the high unemployment rate.

A separate $2.7 million federal transportation grant will allow for six additional natural-gas powered buses, which will bring the number of buses to 49. The fleet currently has 27 natural gas buses, and the rest are diesel-powered.

Another $2.8 million state grant will allow replacement of six aging buses from the fleet.

Brown said she wants to continue to keep diesel-powered buses in the fleet in case there is a disruption in natural gas service, such as from a major earthquake.

A natural gas disruption was experienced in 2018 when a pipeline in Canada ruptured, Brown said.

The RVTD board has indicated a willingness to eventually move to electric buses once the technology is perfected a little more.

“In 10 years, we will have a bus out there that will be very energy efficient,” she said.

Another possibility on the horizon is hydrogen-powered buses.

In the meantime, RVTD will work on using a renewable resource that is close at hand, the natural gas that is a byproduct of the landfill operation.

Rogue Disposal currently runs natural-gas generators at the landfill that produce enough electricity for 3,000 households.

Brown said RVTD has had to take a number of steps to stop the spread of COVID-19 on buses.

Barriers have been placed around drivers, masks are required, and sanitizer is available on the buses.

As part of an agreement with Gov. Kate Brown’s office, buses are allowed to have 3 feet of separation rather than 6 feet. But this requires the cleaning of buses every two to four hours, Brown said.

In addition, transfer stations are routinely cleaned in an effort to keep passengers and crews safe.

“That’s at the forefront of our thoughts,” she said.

RVTD has altered some routes and temporarily stopped others because of low ridership and because the number of people on a bus is more limited now.

Route 21 to Poplar Square is no longer running, and the express bus from Ashland to Medford has been halted.

Route 10, the busiest route from Ashland to Medford, sometimes has two buses following close together so that all the passengers waiting at the stops can be picked up. Doubling up on buses on the route is one reason why the express bus was temporarily halted.

Another route to Central Point has been put on hold as well.

Brown said the CARES grant should allow RVTD to avoid making hard cuts, so it will be prepared to resume normal operations once the pandemic is over.

The CARES Act will not only benefit RVTD, but other transit operations throughout the U.S.

“This historic $25 billion in grant funding will ensure our nation’s public transportation systems can continue to provide services to the millions of Americans who continue to depend on them,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao in a prepared statement.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

File photo / Mail Tribune People wait to catch the bus at the Rogue Valley Transportation District depot on South Front Street in Medford.